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April 14, 2013 | posted in Filmmakers
Jeffrey Schwarz is the President and CEO of Automat Pictures. He has created many short films and several feature length documentaries. His new feature documentary, “I am Divine,” chronicles the life of the late film icon.
Cleveland International Film Festival: What inspired you to make “I am Divine”?
Jeffrey Schwarz: Since I was a teenager I've worshiped at the altar of Divine and John Waters. Anyone who feels like an outsider growing up can certainly relate to the world that they created and they way they lived their lives. Seeing Divine in those movies was just mind-blowing. I'd never seen anything like it and watching him on screen was thrilling. He was so fully committed to the characters he played, and the way he lived his life not caring what anyone thought about him was certainly inspiring. It's now been 25 years since his death and I started getting concerned that Divine's legendary status might be in jeopardy, particularly with a younger generation. There hasn't been a proper documentary about his life, so I wanted to fill that cultural void. Divine is an inspiration to misfits, outsiders, rebels, and freaks and I hope this movie reignites interest in this incredible individual. He's a poster child for misfit youth and proves that anything is possible. He can inspire people to fulfill their own creative destiny.
CIFF: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
JS: The biggest challenge was not so much a challenge, but a hurdle that I wanted to jump before starting to make the film. I would not have made “I am Divine” without the blessing and support of John Waters, so that was the first phone call I made. He knew my work and trusted that Divine's story would be in good hands. John opened up his Rolodex to us and got in touch with all these people I was hoping to interview, telling them to speak with me. After getting John's blessing I got in touch with Frances Milstead, Divine's mom who was still alive at the time. She was totally supportive and sent me some incredible rare photos of Divine when he was growing up. She had a great life in Florida, surrounded by all these gay guys who adored her and made every day special. I'm so glad we were able to interview her before she passed away so she could talk about her boy. She was a lovely person.
CIFF: What was the first Divine film you recall seeing? What was your reaction at the time?
JS: I had read about “Pink Flamingos” years before actually seeing it—in Danny Peary's Cult Movies and John Waters' book Shock Value. At the time I had no tangible connections to gay culture, so John and Divine's sensibility certainly helped lead me down a creative path and was an inspiration. I saw “Hairspray” first right after Divine died, and worked backwards from there. I remember thinking how unfair and depressing it was that there would never be another Divine movie. I went through a completely obsessed phase and watched all the movies over and over, and practically memorized them.
CIFF: Do you have a favorite role that Divine played in a film?
JS: Dawn Davenport for sure. You get to see him transform from a bratty teenager to a homicidal maniac right before your eyes. It's a tour-de-force.
CIFF: This year's theme is "Be The Applause." What aspect of your film do you hope will inspire the applause of CIFF audiences?
JS: When he was growing up, Divine was picked on, teased and abused mercilessly. After meeting John Waters and the Dreamland crew, he found a group that accepted him, loved him, and encouraged him. He was able to take all his teenage rage and channel it into the Divine character. He threw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces and empowered himself. He became an internationally recognized recording artist and screen icon and gives courage to anyone who’s ever been mocked, ridiculed, or ostracized. With all the talk about bullying today, I feel his story shows that there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you love yourself. “I am Divine” is kind of the ultimate "it gets better" story.
--Interview by Bridget Kriner.
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